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Volume: I, Issue: I, July - December 2010



The study of how environmental concerns have grown in human society and soon become a respectable branch of intellectual history may shed significant light on the culture of any society. One can argue that these concerns have two sources: anxiety over the surroundings in which we live, a feeling in which the good life of our own species is the principal object; or sympathy for other animal and plant species, in which the protection of other species (at least their preservation) becomes an end in itself. The two attitudes are products of two different standpoints and it is possible that the requirements of the one, on many occasions, be found in contradiction to those of the other. But underlying both these concerns has been humanity's interest in nature, for its own sake, manifested especially in the scientific study of fauna and flora. Such scientific curiosity is a prerequisite for any serious concern for the protection of both environment and species.

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A very notable feature of Mughal times was the development of interest in natural history. Both Babur's account of Indian fauna and flora [Baburnama (tr)1989 : 488-514] and Jahangir's investigations in Natural History [Tuzuk-i Jahangiri (tr) 1909 ] are well known; and Salim Ali, the celebrated ornithologist drew attention to their contributions as naturalists long ago [1983 (1927) : 1-16 ].

Babur offers his description of fauna of India in a very systematic style. After giving the features of India's physical geography he proceeds to describe first the mammals, then birds, and, finally, aquatic animals. He is not only interested in their physical appearance and use for human beings but also in their habitat, food and attributes. His description of birds is of particular interest for ornithologists. He carefully notes the occasion and place when he first sights a bird [Baburnama : 439 ].

He is also quite aware of birds' migrations [Baburnama : 494]. Similarly, while describing trees his remarks are equally insightful, such as —“It[tamarind] has finely-cut leaflets. It is a very good-looking tree, giving dense shade. It grows wild in masses too”. Or, about latifolia—“most of the wood in houses of Hindustanis is from it”[Baburnama : 494].

Jahangir's interest in animals, birds and fauna shows even a greater scientific bent of mind than his great grandfather. He had perhaps greater leisure than Babur had to satisfy his sense of curiosity, but that he had such a sense surely is much to his credit [ Alvi and Rahama : 1968 ] .

Jahangir ordered his artists to portray animals and birds as well as prepare accurate paintings of flowers providing all the botanical details necessary for identifying the family of the flower. He commissioned his celebrated artist Mansur to paint the flora of Kashmir; and how carefully this was done may be seen from the painting of a species of tulip (staggeringly minute in detail) that has been preserved at Aligarh [ Verma S.P. : 1998].

The interest in animals was not confined to the Emperors. A 17-century stay sheet containing portraits of birds and animals, with notings by an anonymous Mughal middle ranking officer shows how this man not only collected animals for his private zoo from far away places such as the Deccan, Kalinjar, Bahraich and Kashmir, but had a very accurate pictorial record made of them. The painting shows different kinds of crows, partridges and sheep.

The Mughal Emperors and nobles had another interest that indirectly brought them closer to ecology. Laying of gardens whether as resting places and parks or flower gardens (gulistan), (bostan) and orchards was a favourite pastime of the kings, princes, princesses, and nobles. The attempt to introduce new fruits was a natural corollary to it. Akbar's governor Ali Quli Afshar introduced sweet cherry in Kashmir by grafting; and the quality of oranges was improved by grafting in the imperial gardens. Shahjahan generously lifted the ban on grafting, and the grafted oranges began to be widely grown [Irfan Habib 1996 : 129-30 ]. Of much interest is the tendency of Mughal princes and nobles to create public gardens, i.e. gardens open to the public. This is an aspect of Mughal gardens, to which little attention has been paid so far, but which clearly brings out their concern of the garden-laying to make greenery accessible to the ordinary man. Abdur Rahim Khan Khanan laid out public gardens at Burhanpur and Ahmadabad; the King himself another one at Ahmadabad; Princess Jahangira at Surat, and so on. The famous Taj Mahal garden too was open to the public [Irfan Habib1996 : 135-137 ].

In laying out gardens, wherever possible the Mughal rulers sought to make them suited to natural surroundings. This can be seen in the paintings of Baburnama (of Akbar's time), where we see Babur laying out his gardens, or in photographs of the Farah Bakhsh or Shalamar garden at Srinagar built by Jahangir. Or, again, the original Pinjaur garden laid out by Fidai Khan in the setting of the hills.

I began this note by trying to identify the two sources of environmental concern. The first was to preserve a congenial surrounding for one's fellow-beings. I can cite no better illustration for this than an extract from a text on ethics written by Abdu-l Qadir Badaunia leading theological critic of Akbar. Badauni lists among sins and offences, the three sins of 1) cutting down a shaded tree, (2) making a profession of killing animals, and (3) selling away human beings.

Badauni begins by quoting a saying attributed to Prophet Muhammad: God condemns him who kills a cow, cuts down a tree or sells away a human being. While not certain about the genuineness of the Tradition, which, appears often in Islam texts on ethics, Badauni still lauds the principle enshrined here. Indeed, he makes fun of the ordinary Muslims who think that until they have not eaten beef, their religion is not firm. “God be praised” the theologian exclaims, “see what Islam has come to!”[ Haq ed.1972 : 264 ].

In the Prophet's saying the desirability of having shade-bearing trees for the people's comfort is coupled with a sympathy for animals who are slaughtered. This attitude was, however, not restricted only to jurists. A tradition existed in Sind, that any zamindar, who reached a high position, used to put cloths on jungle-trees, and to let free his own animals, such as horses, cows, and buffaloes, in the junglea custom a local Mughal potentate also followed in the 16th century, “releasing a thousand horses and five thousand cows, buffaloes and sheep”[ Bhakkari II : 28 ].

The regard for the preservation of animal species is brought into sharp focus with the episode of the famous vision that Akbar had in the Punjab Salt Range in1578. Here he had assembled a vast force perhaps 50,000 men to overawe his younger brother Mirza Hakim at Kabul. As a kind of military exercise he organized a huge qamargha hunt in which all animals encircled in an extraordinary large area were driven towards Akbar. As this enormous mass of animals came in front of Akbar, the emperor laid aside his musket, fell into a trance, and then ordered all the animals to be released. Many thought, says the official chronicler, that “the beasts of forest had with a tongueless tongue imparted divine secrets to him” [Beveridge 1939 : 347 ].From this time began Akbar's increasing disapproval of the killing of animals initially under sufic influences, but also in conformity with a strong Indian tradition.

Much that I have been able to present in this note is fragmentary; but it still provides, I think, the bead-rock of the pre-history of environmentalism in India attesting the existence of a concern for both how man should communicate better with nature, and how with other living things that are like us, but of different species.




Abul Fazl, Akbarnama, tr. H. Beveridge, III, Calcutta, 1939. For a brilliant interpretation of this episode see M. Athar Ali, “The Vision in the SaltRange” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, 54th (Mysore) session, pp.171-78.

Ahmad, Syed, ed. , Tuzuk-i Jahangiri, Ghazipur, tr. H. Beveridge, 1909.


Ali, Salim, (1927) “The Mughal Emperors of India as Naturalists and Sportsmen” reprinted in J.C. Daniel, ed., A Century of Natural History, Bombay Natural History Society, Bombay, 1983.


Alvi, M.A. And Rahman, A., Jahangir the Naturalist, New Delhi, 1968.


Baburnama (tr.), A.S. Beveridge, Vol.II, Delhi, 1989, pp.488-514.


Bhakkari, Farid, Zakhiratu-l Khawanin, Bombay, II.


Habib, Irfan, “Notes on the Economic and Social Aspects of Mughal Gardens” in James L. Wescoat and J. Wolkschke- Bulmahn, eds., Mughal Gardens, Washington, 1996.


Haq,S. Moinul, ed., Nijatur Rashid, Lahore, 1972.Verma, S.P., Mughal Painters and their Works-A Biographical Survey and Comprehensive Catalogue , Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1994.